Pirates of Blood River (The) (Blu-ray) [Blu-ray]
Blu-ray B - United Kingdom - Powerhouse Films
Review written by and copyright: Rick Curzon (13th March 2020).
The Film

Hammer Volume Five: Death & Deceit collects four films from the early sixties which found the studio looking beyond the horror genre for its next box-office success.

Visa to Canton (1960, released in the US as Passport to China) is a torn-from-the-headlines spy thriller; The Pirates of Blood River (1961), starring Kerwin Mathews (The 7th Voyage of Sinbad) and Christopher Lee (The Face of Fu Manchu), is a swashbuckling adventure; The Scarlet Blade (1963, released in the US as The Crimson Blade) is an English Civil War-set actioner which follows the fortunes of Cromwell’s Roundheads; and The Brigand of Kandahar (1965) takes Hammer to the North-West Frontier for an action-adventure starring Ronald Lewis (Taste of Fear) and Oliver Reed (The System).

All four films are presented for the first time on Blu-ray in the UK, while Visa to Canton, The Scarlet Blade and The Brigand of Kandahar make their world Blu-ray premieres. This limited edition box set is strictly limited to 6,000 numbered units.

Video

Visa to Canton (1960)

One of the least seen Hammer films and for me this is my first viewing.

A Cold War noir set in Hong Kong centring around former WWII American Flying Tigers ace (Richard Basehart) now working as travel agent who gets involved with spiriting a Chinese fighter jock (Burt Kwok) and a double agent (Lisa Gastoni) to safety.

Brisk, enjoyable programmer is uncommonly short for a Hammer film and uses the same Hong Kong sets from Terror of the Tongs (1960). The cast is good including Athene Seyler, Eric Pohlmann, Milton Reid and Bernard Cribbins as a nervous flunky working for Basehart. Edwin Astley's brash score is fun and it passes the time very agreeably without being distinguished.

One of the rarest Hammer films and one I've never been able to see until now.

Sadly, it's not one of the strongest HD masters from Sony with a slightly pasty, flat appearance; that said, this could be a hangover from it's production. I seem to recall this being a busted TV pilot and shot rapidly.

Colours are fairly vivid, black levels are suitably rich with no signs of unintended crush and contrast is supportive. The cinematography seems to favour a slightly hazy quality with plenty of lovely, filmic grain which has been given expert handling by encoder David Mackenzie.

Detail is very decent with skin and fabric textures coming off very well. The lensing favours a fairly warm but natural palette.

I did see some slight print damage but it was very minimal and no signs of digital tinkering that I could detect. This is overall a very agreeable presentation of a rarely seen film and Powerhouse Films have done a bang up job in presenting the master on it's best behaviour.

1080/24p / MPEG-4 AVC / 1.85:1 / 74:57, 74:59

The Pirates of Blood River (1961)
The Scarlet Blade (1963)
The Brigand of Kandahar (1965)


Three Hammerscope productions ...

Gloriously entertaining slices of thick-ear!

Pirates is probably Hammer's most fondly remembered swashbuckler of the sixties; famously this was released on a double bill with Cy Enfield's Mysterious Island (1961) which cleaned up with schoolboys at the time.

Powerhouse have been provided with extremely strong Sony masters for all three scope titles and they look great. Pirates was over compressed on Sony's R1 2008 Icons of Adventure 4-film set which was it's digital debut. That set crammed two films on two dual-layered DVDs with some other video extras which led to soft presentations.

No such issues here although being shot in Hammerscope, a low budget anamorphic widescreen process does mean that the image is a sliver less sharp than a contemporaneous film shot flat. However, colours are typically florid favouring a warm palette with robust flesh tones that really kick out.

Black levels and contrast work beautifully in concert with the largely sunny locations to create a very strong, detailed image that suffers from no crush and terrific shadow detail. Darker scenes and some of the day for night shooting is less strong but that's the breaks with sixties film making on a budget.

Skys are vivid with lovely cloud detail, sweat pours off the cast and although obviously not shot anywhere near the Caribbean the grade and colours enhance the viewers ability to suspend disbelief.

Probably the strongest transfer is in this set and as encoded by Mackenzie and Fidelity in motion no film buff or Hammer fan will be disappointed. This uses the same master as the 2017 US BD release from Twilight Time, which was no slouch but due to a superior encode it stays ahead in the race.

As for The Scarlet Blade and The Brigand of Kandahar; the same comments above apply. Not as fondly remembered or as widely seen both are very well served here as one would respect. The Sony masters are superb withe the opening credits on both looking grand, but Kandahar's blood red credits will sear your eyes and burn into your brain! Also in Kandahar it's even more obvious that the large scale battle scenes are from a different film entirely; the 1956 Albert R. Broccoli epic Zarak, which was lensed using early CinemaScope lens and the image is grainier and slightly more distorted towards the edges.

The Pirates of Blood River: 1080/24p / MPEG-4 AVC / 2.35:1 / 86:58
The Scarlet Blade: 1080/24p / MPEG-4 AVC / 2.35:1 / 82:49
The Brigand of Kandahar: 1080/24p / MPEG-4 AVC / 2.35:1 / 81:55

Audio

English LPCM 1.0
Subtitles: English

Sound on all four films is pretty standard 1.0 mono tracks typical of Hammer and the period. All lack range but all have enough bass and depth to be more than pleasing. Quite simply these are as good as can be without total rebuilds and 5.1 boosts.

The hard of hearing subtitles are excellent and very welcome.

Extras

Audio commentaries on Visa to Canton, The Scarlet Blade with Kevin Lyons, editor of The Encyclopaedia of Fantastic Films and Television
Audio commentary on The Pirates of Blood River with writer Jimmy Sangster, art director Don Mingaye and moderator and Hammer Films historian Marcus Hearn
Audio commentary on The Brigand of Kandahar with film historian Vic Pratt


Excellent, trivia filled yaktraks; Lyons and Pratt have obviously done their research well. The Sangster-Mingaye-Hearn track dates from the 2008 DVD release and is chatty and fact filled.

"Hammer's Women: Virginie Sélavy on Lisa Gastoni" 2020 featurette (14:18)
"Hammer's Women: Kat Ellinger on Marla Landi" 2020 featurette (11:10)
"Hammer's Women: Jo Botting on June Thorburn" 2020 featurette (18:21)
"Hammer's Women: Melanie Williams on Yvonne Romain" 2020 featurette (7:39)


A very thorough précis of the life and career of Gastoni, an actress with whom I was aware of but not at all deeply familiar. One of those names one comes across in one's reading about cinema. This is the first time I've encountered Sélavy, and she has a naturally relaxed onscreen presence and has also done her research; I hope we hear more from her on future DVD / BD releases.

Ellinger, Williams and Botting are old hands on these Powerhouse releases, indeed many other DVD and BD releases from both the UK and the USA ... perhaps elsewhere.

"Ticket to Ride: Vic Pratt on Ethnocentrism, Pulp Fiction and Visa to Canton" 2020 featurette (18:46)

Pratt focusses on the depiction of foreigners in English language cinema and Visa to Canton is one of the pivots of the piece.

"Stephen Laws Introduces The Pirates of Blood River" 2020 featurette (11:34)
"Stephen Laws Introduces The Scarlet Blade" 2020 featurette (6:41)
"Stephen Laws Introduces The Brigand of Kandahar" 2020 featurette (8:16)


A celebrity fan, horror writer Laws loves his Hammer period swashbucklers and is the perfect, genial host as he passionately introduces each film. Laws has been shot against a dark blue backdrop wearing a dark jacket, but the brightness levels are too low so he appears as a floating head. Turn your brightness up there notches.

"Bond Before Bond: David Huckvale on Edwin Astley and Visa to Canton" 2020 featurette (14:28)
"Motifs of the Cheerful Heart: David Huckvale on Gary Hughes and The Pirates of Blood River" 2020 featurette (8:20)
"Appropriately Military: David Huckvale on Gary Hughes and The Scarlet Blade" 2020 featurette (11:20)
"Afghan Ostinati: David Huckvale on Don Banks and The Brigand of Kandahar" 2020 featurette (12:45)


Ah, David Huckvale! I could listen to him wax lyrical all day and night about his favourite composters and or musicians. I've heard it said that the makers of DVD / BD added value material just set up the camera and let him at it with several pieces he's done in the past running much longer than planned. Here Huckvale turns his lens onto lesser known names like Astley, Hughes and Banks, names most cult and TV fans are well aware of.

"Almost an Auteur: Kim Newman on the Hammer Films of John Gilling" 2020 featurette (28:09)
"Adventures in Film: Neil Sinyard Examines the Career and Reputation of John Gilling" 2020 featurette (19:42)


Two new pieces covering the career of unsung Hammer director Gilling.

It's Kim-fucking-Newman, need I say more! A legend in cult film and TV circles who has appeared in more DVD and BD extras packages than any other living human! Always very agreeable in presence and manor and what he doesn't know about the subjects wouldn't fill a flea's codpiece!

Sinyard is an equally highly regarded legend of the business having been around even longer than Newman, although he's appeared on many Powerhouse Film's releases he's not quite as ubiquitous. However, growing up in the '70s and '80s as a film buff means I have been reading his work for forty years.

"Yes, We Have No Piranhas" 2020 featurette on the different versions of The Pirates of Blood River (10:37)

Excellent featurette covering the differing edits and censorship cuts of Sangster & Gilling's pirate epic.

""Did I write That?": Jimmy Sangster at Hammer" 2020 interview with Jonathan Rigby on Jimmy Sangster (42:27)

Rigby has written several books on genre film and knew Sangster. He covers his career and personality in some depth in this chunky piece.

Andrew Kier Interviewed at the 4th Festival of Fantastic Films: Conducted by Stephen Laws in Manchester 1993 (20:16)
"Doing Battle: Hugh Harlow and Pauline Wise on The Scarlet Blade" 2020 featurette (7:12)

The interview with Kier is vintage, a multi-Hammer film participant sadly long gone. Harlow-Wise are mainstays of Hammer and worked on many, many productions for the company

Trailer from Hell with Brian Trenchard Smith on The Pirates of Blood River (2:18)

Trenchard Smith is one if those old pros, a mainstay of the business since his career began in the UK cutting Hammer trailers, taking in directing films all over the world. He always makes me want to see whatever film he's discussing.

Visa to Canton: UK Theatrical Trailer (2:24)
The Pirates of Blood River: Theatrical Trailer (2:02)
The Scarlet Blade: US Theatrical Trailer (2:30)
The Brigand of Kandahar: Theatrical Trailer (2:37)


Typically florid promo pieces.

Visa to Canton Image Gallery: Original Promotional Material (58 images)
The Pirates of Blood River Image Gallery: Original Promotional Material (74 images)
The Scarlet Blade Image Gallery: Original Promotional Material (110 images)
The Brigand of Kandahar Image Gallery: Original Promotional Material (74 images)


Surprisingly chunky HD still galleries.

36-page booklet on Visa to Canton with a new essay by Josephine Botting, an account of the RB-47 affair which mirrored events in Visa to Canton’s storyline, selected excerpts from the original Hammer publicity manual, and film credits
36-page booklet on The Pirates of Blood River with a new essay by Lindsay Hallam, Jimmy Sangster on The Pirates of Blood River, a selection of promotional materials, an overview of contemporary critical responses, and film credits.
36-page booklet on The Scarlet Blade with a new essay by Neil Sinyard, Jeff Billington on the 1960s film career of Oliver Reed, a selection of extracts from the Hammer publicity manual, an overview of contemporary critical responses, and film credits
36-page booklet on The Brigand of Kandahar with a new essay by Naman Ramachandran, an extensive selection of items from the original Hammer publicity manual and pressbooks, and film credits


Powerhouse Film's booklets are in a league of their own and these are no different ... and there are four!!!!

Packaging

Four standard, clear Powerhouse Films BD Keepcases in a hard cared slipcase with and outer card sleeve.

Overall

These Hammer / Powerhouse Films / Indicator Series boxed sets are becoming jewels in the firmament. Top notch image and sound and extras packages to make Hammer fans fall down on their knees and weep! If you have the previous four sets then this will be a must, if you haven't ... WTF!

Get over to the Powerhouse website and buy the buggers. As with the previous four, number five is one of THE disc sets of the year.

The Film: B+ Video: A+ Audio: A+ Extras: A+ Overall: A+

 


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